The sport of tennis has known Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two best players of our time, for the last 16 years or so, with no one being able to measure up to their steady and sometimes breathtaking level of excellence. No other player can hope to match their achievements.
Now, though, Novak Djokovic has arrived. After winning the Wimbledon title and the Rogers Cup and the Olympic gold medal, Djokovic has the world number one ranking — proving how well he has recovered from the knife attack and surgery he suffered in June 2017. I’ve always been a fan of Djokovic and I think he’s had a high enough profile to make it into the conversation about the best players in tennis history, but he had never been the no. 1 player in any of the four major competitions. That has been one of the great achievements in tennis.
Djokovic now gives tennis its no. 1 after staying at the top of the rankings for 42 weeks in total — the second longest run among men and a personal best for the Serb. The record for longest time at the top belonged to Federer, who held the top spot for 193 weeks between 2003 and 2010.
The common comment was that having Federer at the top of the rankings was a very serious matter, in that he was pulling the full weight of the sport. And the number one spot also meant having to chase Federer and Nadal, who were the two best players around for so long that they had to share the business of competing. Having a leading man whose form makes sense and who is actually looking in tip-top condition is the most important piece of any tennis circuit.
In terms of the very latest ranking, Djokovic is actually starting to look quite a bit like his old self — the Djokovic that played in the Roger Federer days — when he won the U.S. Open in 2011 and the French Open in 2012.
It’s a surprise that he’s so hot now given that he’s been plagued by a number of injuries and personal demons through his career. There are all kinds of reasons why his form changed so dramatically, but in this game you have to play consistently well over long periods of time.
Djokovic has the most impressive record in Australia against three of the four top players of this era. He has won four of the last five Australian Open titles — with the only defeat to Federer in 2012. This is significant because the Aussie Open is the only tournament he has never won.
So when you’re No. 1 you really have to dominate a tournament, and there’s no reason to believe Djokovic can’t at least retain the Australian Open title next January.
Although Roger Federer has now announced that he’s taking his foot off the gas for next year and resting up, Djokovic — who will have two Masters events in early 2019 — is going to be pretty much straight back to world no. 1.
Whether Nadal can match his conqueror’s ambitions remains to be seen. He’s still a top player and it could still be a difficult year for him. But the point is that Djokovic is there to stay, and I’m sure he has much bigger things in store for the sport.
Lance LaVine is a columnist and contributor for CNN.com. He writes about the sport, men’s tennis and men’s fashion and is a co-owner of the esteemed tennis apparel brand, O’Neill & Partners. Follow him on Twitter @LanceLaVine.